11th SUNDAY(YEAR B) June 13, 2021
Ezekiel 17: 22-24; Psalm 92; 2 Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34
by Jude Siciliano, OP
The first parable in today’s gospel, from Mark, is one of my favorites. It is found only in Mark, but that does not reduce its impact, or significance – at least for me and, I am sure for Mark’s community. His gospel was the first written and therefore closest to Jesus’ death. Their world was also the oppressive one in which Jesus lived. The fragile Christian community needed to hear a message of hope and that’s what Mark addressed from the first words of his gospel. He gets right to the point, "Here begins the gospel ["good news"] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." (1:1)
One of the key features of Mark’s gospel is its emphasis on suffering – the cross was very much on the minds of the early believers; the cross of Jesus, but also the cross Jesus promised for those who chose to accept his invitation to follow him (8:34-36). In light of the insignificance of the first disciples and the seeming impossibility of their task, the parable of the seed that grows by itself must have been hope-building for them.
The title in my Bible for this parable is, "Seed Grows of Itself." There are other possibilities. How about, "the Parable of the Lazy Farmer?" Or, "the Surprise Parable?" Our Dominican sister, Barbara Reid, suggests "the Sleepy Sower." [cf below].
Parables are exercises in imagination. Can you imagine this casual farmer, who "scatters seed" then goes to bed? Do you see him, or her, reading in bed, with a light on the night table, along with a warm glass of milk, or something stronger? Meanwhile, the seed is not sleeping. It is very busy producing, first the blade, then the ear, finally the ripe wheat in the ear.
Continue imagining this scene. One morning, after sleeping through the alarm, the farmer sits up in bed, slaps his, or her forehead and says, "I almost forgot the seed I scattered. I wonder how it’s doing? So, the farmer goes out to the field and is surprised, even startled. "Why look a-here! All that wheat just ready to be picked!
I grew up in Brooklyn and am pretty ignorant of farming techniques. But those of you who live in farming areas, must have have it pretty easy, at least according to this parable. You just plant seed and it grows while you slept? While us cityfolk have to commute, scratch out a living and lose sleep. But even this big city kid knows this parable doesn’t sound like real life farming. I want to fill in the blanks about weeding, fertilizing, watering, to make the parable more realistic. What did this carpenter from Nazareth know about farming anyway! Well, Jesus wasn’t giving a lecture on a "laissez-faire" method of farming, carefree and easy. Remember it’s a parable and he is inviting us into a world he is creating to give us an experience of how God works.
There is a series of planting, sowing parables in Mark’s gospel (4:1-25). They have to do with hard work, proper soil and seed struggling to survive. In comparison to those parables, one commentator says the parable is almost comic – and I would add, surprising, inspiring and humbling. It is not about the diligence, hard work, or intelligence of the farmer. It’s about that seed. It’s fertile, it will sprout, despite the fact that the farmer "knows not how."
There is a rhythm in the parable. The farmer "would sleep and rise night and day." It cannot be stopped: first the blade appears, then the ear, the wheat and finally the harvest. The Greek puts it more strongly: the seed grows "automatically" until the harvest has come.
What does a carpenter know about farming anyway? Who knows? What he does know and what he is so sure about is the "reign of God": how it is when God is in charge; when God is at work; and how God works. Jesus is sharing his perspective of God’s rule with us. No matter what: God’s seed will grow; God’s harvest will come. How reassuring this parable must have been to Mark’s community struggling to be faithful to Jesus’ teaching, feeling at times overwhelmed, and not seeing immediate success in their labors.
The parable speaks to any of us who try to teach our faith to our children and ask "Have I done enough?" It encourages us when: we wonder if we have words to console the grieving; when we take communion to someone dying; minister in a parish, sing in a choir, and be a lector at Mass; write to a politician; speak up for the homeless at a city council meeting, etc. We pray and then "scatter seed" by our words and actions.
We don’t always see immediate results, but Jesus reminds us, "This is how it is with the reign of God." We may never feel we have done enough, that our work is undone, but the parable reminds us that it is not all up to us. The seed has a life of its own, even if we should drift off, or fall asleep. Jesus tells us not to be fretful and anxious. There is no doubt in this parable. There will be a harvest and it does not all depend on us.
But this is not a parable about kicking back, doing nothing. The ministry of God’s Word calls for a lot of hard work, especially during these post-pandemic, struggling days. We are challenged to apply ourselves where the needs are, which might be as close as in our own homes. We will work hard and do our best. But still, there is this parable and it is easy to forget it. Jesus is reminding us about God’s presence and action in our world. Yes, we will work as hard as we can with all our heart, education and skills. And we will pray hard.
We will also remind ourselves of this parable’s message, that as much as we try we have little to do with making the seed grow. It has a life of its own. There will be a harvest. It is not just about what we can accomplish with our hard work, we are not alone in our efforts.
Parables can stir up prayer for us. What prayerful response does this parable invite you to? Prayers of wonder and praise? Prayers for wisdom and a clear vision? Prayers for patience and sustained hope, despite present appearances? It is obvious that Jesus wasn’t just telling quaint tales to children. Instead, the parables are God’s Word and, if we let them, can open our eyes to God up close, very active and present to us now. The parables sustained the early Christians in trying times and they can do the same for us. Use your imagination.